Each season, Living Well magazine brings you health and wellness inspiration for you and your family. In this story, nutritionist Jessica Campbell explains how ‘middle-age spread’ creeps up on us, and what we can do about it. Pick up the latest issue of Living Well at your local Unichem.
Slow weight gain occurs typically in small increments – a kilogram here or there with each passing birthday – which can go unnoticed for several years. It’s often when you find yourself unable to fasten a once-loose pair of pants, or see a photo in which you appear bigger than you thought you were, that you’re forced to confront the issue.
Progressive weight gain takes hold in our late 30s and 40s and can be a source of anxiety about body shape and size, as well as a factor in disease risk. Carrying weight across the midsection, in particular, poses significant risks for cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and some types of cancers.
Minimising middle-age weight gain has important health implications, but before you start berating yourself over the extra serving of lasagne, the after-dinner chocolate biscuits or that last glass of pinot, here’s why it happens and what we can do about it.
Where the weight comes from
Our physiology changes as we age – we lose muscle mass, gain fat and hormones start going a little crazy. We juggle families, careers, finances and social lives. Weight also creeps on thanks to sedentary work, stress, poor sleep, emotional eating, incidental eating and alcohol use. Our constant connection to email and mobile phones amplifies stress levels, wreaking havoc on our nervous system and hormones and creating the perfect biochemical landscape for weight gain.
Physiological causes of weight gain
As we age, several biological changes occur that prime the body for the accumulation of fat, especially in the midsection. Body composition changes: we lose the calorie-burning muscle tissue and gain fat tissue in its place. This muscle loss results in a slower metabolism and reduced daily calorie requirement that we rarely match by reducing our food intake.
Weight gain due to the loss of muscle alone averages half a kilogram a year. And if we continue to eat (and drink alcohol) in the same way that we did in our 20s and early 30s then we will steadily gain even more weight.
Engaging in regular physical activity, particularly resistance training using free weights, gym machines and resistance bands, helps build healthy muscle and optimises fat-burning ability.
Hormones also play a role in expanding our waistlines. Women suffering from debilitating PMS may consume up to 20 percent more in the week leading up to menstruation. This is a phenomenal amount of extra eating over one week in every month.
If you are struggling with premenstrual symptoms or hormonal imbalance, talk to your GP or Unichem Pharmacist. Diet also plays a key role in establishing and maintaining hormone balance and you’ll need to monitor your coffee and alcohol intake.
Busy women often describe a feeling of complete exhaustion resulting from meeting the needs of everyone around them, yet forgetting to address their own. A woman with a lot on her plate often produces higher than normal levels of stress hormones, particularly cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol slow our metabolism and encourage deposition of fat around our midsection and arms.
Shifting the weight
There are so many interconnected factors associated with middle-age weight gain that I strongly encourage you to think about your lifestyle and nutrition habits and work on making small, manageable changes often.
Start by keeping a food and activity diary for seven days to help you identify eating and activity habits that may not be serving your health. If you do plan to make weight loss a priority, aim to lose 0.5 – 1kg each week and always weigh yourself at the same time on the same day each week.
Unfortunately, upon noticing weight gain many women rush straight into dieting – restricting calories and food intake, adopting unusual eating habits or skipping meals. This only further slows your metabolism and promotes the retention of fat; you’ll experience yet another shift in your internal biochemistry, which will take you another step further from weight loss.
Managing or resolving stress issues and cortisol levels is the way to shift stubborn ‘stress’ weight. Engage in physical activity, choose wholefoods and eat regularly. Four or five small meals will help you to maintain a stable blood sugar level throughout the day and is less likely to result in you hankering after a sweet treat at 3pm.
Keep an eye on portion sizes and be aware of incidental or unplanned snacking. If you haven’t considered your portion sizes before, now is the time to do so, and downsizing your dinner plates and bowls is a great way to start. Prepare and pack healthy food for yourself each day, in the same way you do for your children. Unplanned snacking is often a key contributor to weight gain in mums, especially during meal preparation and for women working in an office environment as meetings, birthdays and staff leaving does provide many opportunities to indulge in pastries, sausage rolls and cakes.
Ask for help with your weight management
Your Unichem Pharmacist can help you devise a personalised plan that incorporates using weight management products with lifestyle changes such as a sensible exercise plan and healthy eating.